Stress - friend or foe?
There is an encouraging awareness of mental health issues today. This increased emphasis is reflected in articles, videos and reports across the popular media covering a wide range of emotional topics.
Stress is one of those issues that continues to receive considerable attention. Much of this comment is cautionary. Stress is regarded as a contemporary sickness born out of the demands of life in the 21st century and has been cited as a reason for many current physical disorders as well as mental dysfunction.
Modern technology allows us to measure the impact of stress and strain upon the body. It is now clear that physical reactions to difficult situations can in certain circumstances have a detrimental impact on the well-being of the body. Our emotional health can also be adversely affected by a relentless battering of bad news or malevolent influences. As therapists, we can evidence this with reference to the many clients who come into the counselling room weary from carrying distressing emotional burdens.
Yet despite these problematic impacts, it may be helpful to reflect on whether this phenomena of stress really deserves such a critical depiction. From the dawn of time homo sapiens have engaged in activity which has inevitably resulted in stressful reactions. With exploration of the physical world and the embracing of relationships with significant others, our forefathers and mothers chose to explore new situations than just remain cowed and isolated at home. Thank goodness or we would probably not be here!
We have always known that relationships can go wrong and that explorations carry risk. Disasters can occur and often have. Yet new horizons have continued to be sought by women and men across all the continents. That indicates that stress has actually been an ever present in human life accompanying that determination to move forward and embrace unknown worlds be these new physical or emotional places.
Modern technology allows us to understand far more about these physical reactions to stress than in the past. This knowledge enables us to understand that alongside the vulnerabilities, stress can also have a positive impact on our physical being. The impact of stress can result in a strengthening of our general awareness, an improvement in our responsiveness and the provision of a natural stimulant when our bodies and minds most require support.
Despite these benefits we will hear talk from many different quarters of a desire to banish stress from our lives. One common example is around moving home. Advertisers across the home buying and relocation process will talk of finding (or selling?) techniques that will make a home move ‘stress free’. The reality of course is that this is an absurd assertion.
Changing home, just like changing relationships or a workplace will always be accompanied by feelings such as uncertainty, apprehension and trepidation. Perhaps we can group these and similar feelings together under that stress banner. Yet these feelings are absolutely appropriate to the extent of the major change we are encountering when moving home.
Change brings stress albeit at differing levels. Indeed if a client in the therapy room talks dismissively of a relationship lost, of a redundancy or a bereavement, then the therapist should be on alert. A claim of a stress free state of mind at a time of great change has a ring of denial attached to it.
This is not to propose that stress be actively sought out, merely that it is a natural part of being human. It is of course sensible to avoid uncomfortable feelings when possible. Yet stress will inevitably be present at key times of our life. In common with dealing with many potentially difficult aspects of life, the ideal approach is surely not to deny reality but instead to find an optimum way of living with difficult challenges whatever these may be.
Our relationship with stress can be straightforward. Stress will accompany us through life as we engage with those challenges, from falling in and out of love, changing employment, moving home and encountering mortality. The key task is to look at how we manage our relationship with stress. Rather than seek avoidance we should look to work on our stress management techniques to ensure that we stay in control of ourselves whatever is going on in this frustrating world.
There are many different types of stress management techniques. Some can be self driven. These may be drawn from the plethora of self help material currently available. Alternatively stress management may involve active support from friends, family or colleagues at the work place. Where these approaches may not be appropriate or if the level of stress is too high or too persistent, specialist support can also be sought from an experienced therapist or counsellor.
Different stress management techniques will all have a place. What is important is what works for each individual client given her or his particular situation.
The starting approach to that work should however be a consistent one. Stress is a consequence of living life but it is not a curse. We should not be afraid of stress. With the right encouragement we can learn to deal with our stress and still live life to the full.